Why Every Race Needs Women’s Cut Running Shirts

runDisney, Disney running, Tinker Bell Half Marathon, running shirt

Smiles for women’s cut race shirts at the 2012 Tinker Bell Half Marathon. (Photo: runDisney)

An Open Letter To Race Directors Everywhere

Dear Race Directors,

Earlier this year, runDisney announced they are offering women’s cut running shirts at the 2014 Walt Disney World Marathon in addition to the “unisex” race shirts they’ve handed out for the last 20 years.

Women all across the U.S. shouted a collective “Amen!” to Disney’s news. Why? We’ve been grumbling about this for years: under our breath, to other runners, and, on occasion, to you.

Disney recognized what you should too: women now account for the majority of runners. The tide has turned and women are the main driver in the current running boom.

So here are all of the reasons why you should have women’s cut running shirts at your next major race as part of your registration kit.

The Women’s Running Boom

In 2012, a record 56 percent of all running race finishers were women. There were over 8.6 million of us out there, versus 6.8 million men. When you look at the half marathon, America’s most popular race distance by any measure according to RunningUSA, women account for 60 percent of the field. RunningUSA, which tracks and publishes all these stats, called this “astounding.”

running shirt, women's running

Women now account for 56 percent of all running race finishers. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

In fact, it’s the increased year-over-year participation of women that has largely fueled the current running boom. Since 1990, the number of female running event finishers has climbed from just under 1.2 million to nearly 8.7 million. At the same time, the number of male finishers has grown from almost 3.6 million to just over 6.8 million. Namely, while male participation hasn’t quite doubled, female participation has jumped more than 700 percent.

While women are just 42 percent of marathon finishers overall, some races are starting to see the changing of the guard. More women than men ran the Walt Disney World Marathon in 2013, the first time in the race’s 20 years. It was one of the first major marathons where that happened.

In fact, so many women are running these days that they’ve inspired a whole new genre of race: the women’s focused race. We flock to them by the thousands. I’ll tell you a secret: one of the reasons is the women’s cut running shirts. Seriously. I’m not kidding. Sure, we love the camaraderie, we love being first off the line, but we also love getting a race shirt that actually fits, instead of a men’s shirt that someone labeled “unisex.”

Women Hate Unisex Shirts

Guess what? You’re not fooling anyone by calling race shirts unisex. Unisex is code for men’s. They don’t fit most women and they look terrible on most women. If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck… you get the idea.

Do you know what we do with them? We give them away. We cut them up and use them as rags. We wear them as “toss away” shirts at our cold weather races.

I give many of mine to my husband, especially when I get to the expo to discover that all the extra-smalls, smalls, and mediums are already gone and I’m left with a men’s large that is far too big on me, despite the fact that I checked the “XS” shirt box when I registered.

My husband has not once heard, “Sorry, we’re all out of large!” But without fail, at race after race, all the small sizes disappear while the larger sizes are left behind. When are race directors going to learn to order fewer large and extra-large and more small and extra-small? Better yet, when are they all going to start offering women’s cut running shirts and solve that problem for once and for all?

Sure, there are a very few unisex race shirts that I keep simply because I love the race. But I almost never wear them anymore. I reach for all of my women’s cut shirts time and time again.

Why Race Directors Should Care

So what, you say? Why should I care if you give your race shirt away or turn it into a rag, you ask? When runners wear your race shirt, you get free advertising. If half of your runners aren’t wearing the race shirt, you’re selling yourself short. I often get asked about a running shirt I’m wearing by other runners, even strangers on the street—if I liked it, when the race is, things like that. I do the same. If I see someone wearing a shirt from a race I’m curious about, I’ll ask them about it. It happens all the time. Actually, it just happened to me the other day. Someone on the subway in New York City asked me about a race after reading my shirt. She wanted to know when the race was and if it was worth traveling for.

running shirt, women's running

Women buy 60 percent of athletic shoes. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

But losing half of your customer base as walking advertisements is not just bad for you, it’s also bad business for your sponsors. Women “control” 70 percent of all household purchases and 64 percent of total consumer spending worldwide, according to a 2008 Boston Consulting Group survey. It holds true in the running world too. Women buy 60 percent of all athletic shoes, which includes running shoes, according to a 2012 U.S. Census report citing a 2010 National Sporting Goods Association survey.

Sure, some people dispute those statistics, like a 2011 Wall Street Journal article that said while women on average say they control 73 percent of household spending, men say they control 61 percent of it. Thus, both groups claim to influence the majority of spending. “But it also shows that two or more people can influence a purchasing decision, or think that they can,” the article states. Exactly. Even if women merely think they control 73 percent of purchasing decisions, you want them thinking well of you.

My own household fits that 73 percent mold. I do the vast majority of the buying for my husband and me, though we discuss all our major purchases. And I’m more likely to buy something from a company if I just love the shirt I got at one of my races. It exposes me to brands I might not otherwise think of.

Here’s a case in point. At the 2012 Tinker Bell Half Marathon, I got a women’s cut shirt made by Champion (pictured above), a brand I’ve never worn as a runner. I loved the fit and how well it washed. A month later, I was shopping for a solid white running shirt for my husband. When I found three shirts for the same price at my local sports store, guess which one I bought? The one by Champion.

Mind you, I’d also received a men’s cut shirt by Champion at the 2011 Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon. I’ve worn it exactly zero times. If my only experience of the brand had been that men’s cut shirt, I probably wouldn’t have bought the Champion shirt for my husband. I would have bought one from one of the other two brands that I would have been more familiar with. But because I got a women’s cut shirt that I actually wore, it allowed me to get to know the brand better.

One Race Director’s Take

Just to make sure I’m not asking a Sisyphean task of race directors, I decided to check with one: NYCRUNS founder Steve Lastoe, who I’ve worked with on many occasions and is a personal friend. I asked Lastoe, who organizes races like the Brooklyn Marathon and Yonkers Marathon and Half Marathon (where I got a women’s cut shirt in 2012), to tell me candidly just how hard it is to give gender specific running shirts.

“There is no way to order and get it 100 percent right, but gender specificity shouldn’t throw it off that much more,” Lastoe said. “The bigger the race, the more likely you are to be further off. It’s a balancing act.”

But many major races, like the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Oasis Montreal Marathon and Half Marathon, and Philadelphia Marathon, manage to pull it off. I got women’s cut shirts from those events in 2009, 2010, and 2012 respectively.

“I really believe that runners deserve a shirt in their size,” Lastoe said. “The more important the race, the truer that is and that goes for gender specificity too.”

How To Decide If Your Race Needs Women’s Cut Running Shirts

Now, I’m not talking about community runs or small charity events that barely make ends meet. I know you’re fighting just to stay alive and do some good in your community. The measure? If your race hands out cotton tees, you probably get a pass.

running shirt, women's running

Women don’t run in baggy T-shirts. They run in women’s cut tops. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

What if your race hands out technical shirts? Here’s a handy 10-point checklist to help you decide if your event should offer women’s cut running shirts. If you can answer “Yes” to at least two of these questions, you should probably think about it, even if you are a not-for-profit event, as many races still are. If you can answer “Yes” to three or more, then you definitely should offer women’s cut shirts. I realize that these are arbitrary measures, but they’re a good place to start a conversation:

  • Are more than 50 percent of your participants women?
  • Is your event a for-profit endeavor?
  • Is your event a marquee race for your city, town or local area?
  • Does your event have 1,000 or more participants?
  • Does your event give out technical running shirts?
  • Does your event have an expo?
  • Does your event give finisher medals?
  • Does your event have a major sponsor?
  • Does your event have prize money and/or appearance fees for professional runners?
  • Does your event cost $50 or more for a half marathon or shorter distance and $75 or more for a marathon or triathlon?

If you’re organizing a race where more than 50 percent of your participants are women and you really only want to offer one shirt, why not make it a women’s cut and pass that off as “unisex”? I’d love to see how that goes.

And what about women who prefer men’s cut shirts? There’s a simple solution. Next to the size selection box on the registration form, have a gendered shirt selection box. It’s what many races that offer gender specific shirts already do. That way men and the women who prefer men’s shirts can have them and the rest of us can also get shirts that fit.

A Final Plea

I don’t usually write diatribes. But as I looked back at the seven races I’ve done this year, I realized that not a single one gave me a women’s cut running shirt. Of those seven races, three definitely should have. I’m not going to single out any race in particular because this is an industry-wide problem, and one that people are starting to address. One of those three races has already announced they will have women’s cut running shirts next year. I chatted with the founder of another, who told me it’s something he is considering.

I sincerely hope so. I hope runDisney moves to gender specific running shirts for all of their events in 2014, and that other companies follow suit. I’m tired of shaking my fist at the sky as I slide on another race shirt that fits me like an oversized rain poncho before tossing it at my husband with a terse, “Here.” Or give me a visor for warm-weather races, a tuque for cold-weather ones, something, anything other than another men’s cut shirt. Please.

Look, we’re not asking you to rehang the moon. We simply want the running shirt that we get as part of our race registration to reflect who we are: women.

With all sincerity,

Karla Bruning

p.s. Ladies, can I get an amen?

Does your favorite race have women’s cut running shirts? If so, let them know you appreciate it. If not, send them this post. Please tweet, post, pin, like, link, e-mail, yodel or whatever else it is you do to communicate these days. Let race directors know that running isn’t simply a man’s world anymore and race shirts should reflect that.

Disclosure: Disney sometimes provides me with complimentary race entry, hotel, park tickets, and some meals for runDisney events. NYCRUNS has given me race entries and hired me for events. But as always, all opinions are purely my own. I really do believe in being honest about my experiences and neither of these companies are an exception. For more information read my Disclosure Policy.

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a regular contributor to SHAPE.com, the host of NYRR's On The Run web + TV show, and a race announcer at events like the TCS New York City Marathon. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now she freelances as a running reporter. She's run 7 marathons, 20 halves, 6 triathlons, sings in an '80s cover band, spoils her dog + travels compulsively.

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